Canada - State Surveillance of an Indigenous Rights Campaigner

Date of publication: 
2 November 2014

The Wars At Home: What State Surveillance of an Indigenous Rights Campaigner Tells Us About Real Risk in Canada

Recent revelations that the RCMP spied on Indigenous environmental rights activist Clayton Thomas-Muller should not be dismissed as routine monitoring. They reveal a long-term, national energy strategy that is coming increasingly into conflict with Indigenous rights and assertions of Indigenous jurisdiction over lands and resources.

A “Critical Infrastructure Suspicious Incident” report was triggered by Thomas-Muller’s trip in 2010 to the Unist’ot’en camp of Wet’suwet’en land defenders, where a protect camp was being built on the coordinates of a proposed Pacific Trails pipeline.

The Unist’ot’en clan continues to hold their ground along these GPS coordinates today. Not coincidentally, they are members of a nation that took its assertions of jurisdiction to the Supreme Court of Canada in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia in 1997, establishing in Canadian case law the underlying proprietary interest of Indigenous peoples to their unceded lands.

This confluence of Indigenous proprietary interests with a multi-billion dollar energy sector has informed the development of new security apparatuses, mobilized to defend private sector investment and national energy market ambitions. As Public Safety Canada notes, disruptions to critical infrastructure could lead to “adverse economic effects.”

The RCMP National Security Criminal Investigations (NSCI) unit currently focuses on three “critical infrastructure” sectors, among which are energy and transportation. The NSCI houses the Critical Infrastructure Criminal Intelligence Unit (CICIU), which runs the Suspicious Incident Reporting (SIR) system that first identified Thomas-Muller’s travel plans as a potential risk.

State surveillance of Thomas-Muller falls into a growing net of secret spying on Indigenous groups, leaders, and organizers who seek to uphold Indigenous peoples’ internationally recognized rights of free, prior, and informed consent on their territories.

One form of risk mitigation to keep energy sectors barrier-free and accessible to the flow of capital is to induce First Nations to cede jurisdiction over their lands through the land claims policy and other “non-treaty” agreements.

It is no coincidence that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs appointed Douglas Eyford in July 2014 as the Special Ministerial Representative to review the first update to the land claims policy in almost 30 years. Eyford was also appointed the Special Federal Representative commissioned to produce a report on facilitating agreement with First Nations regarding West Coast Energy Infrastructure in 2013.

But when Indigenous groups refuse to comply with such policies, pacification strategies like surveillance are put into effect to intimidate lawfully acting organizers and citizens. Keeping tabs on organizers like Thomas-Muller is one prong of a complex and powerful constellation of power between industry and government to ensure pipelines like Pacific Trails, and its nearby Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, will get built.

An Army of Complicity & Collaboration

As reported in The Guardian, information sharing between the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) and dozens of oil and gas sector companies shows an unprecedented degree of cooperation between parties. Corporations have been meeting bi-annually with federal government officials since 2005 to discuss security issues around critical infrastructure such as pipelines. At the request of the Ministry of Natural Resources Canada, companies like Enbridge have even footed some of the bill for these gatherings, receiving high security clearance in exchange.

In fact, as Dr. Tia Dafnos explains, the SIR system was established by NSCI to facilitate the exchange of information and intelligence among law enforcement, government agencies and private sector critical infrastructure owner-operators relating to threats to critical infrastructure.

Dafnos’ doctoral research in Sociology at York University examined the expansion of intelligence sharing relationships among police, government and owner-operators. The SIR is a web-based portal where critical infrastructure owners and operators, such as Enbridge, can access information through the system as well as contribute and report “suspicious incidents” relating to their infrastructure operations. As she explains, “The information provided by owner-operators is analyzed by the NSCI’s Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Team to produce intelligence for both law enforcement and owner operators to inform their operations.”

She notes that what is significant about the surveillance documents concerning Thomas-Muller is that the initial assessment by the intelligence analyst concluded that no “national security nexus” was found. What pressures existed for a senior officer at RCMP headquarters to override this assessment?

Dafnos states that this raises serious questions about how criminal investigations are triggered in Canada. It also raises critical questions about how groups and individuals become targeted as “extremist” threats. She said, “The implication of this designation is that, as these documents show, a group or individual can be targeted for more intensive investigation and surveillance.” Surveillance, then, can escalate into far more serious criminal targeting and defamation.

Indigenous Rights

The difference between other environmental activists and Indigenous peoples being monitored are the particular legal and historical rights associated with Indigenous relationships to the land.

When Indigenous assertions of jurisdiction over their lands are characterized as threats to critical infrastructure, the state is likely hazarding a claim over disputed lands. These sweeping state powers blatantly contradict recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions on Aboriginal rights and title.

As Thomas-Muller declares, “These movements, like the Unist’ot’en camp of Wet’suwet’en land defenders, are acting in defense of their jurisdiction. Since these are disputed territories, Canada is bringing in its intelligence agencies and army to clear us out. But the courts are delivering more clarity on these issues of territory, and our rights to unceded and treaty territories are much greater than the government lets on. They are still acting like cowboys, when those days should be long over.”

He finds particular issue with the hypocrisy of calling this surveillance necessary for national security. “Our movements are about justice,” he said. “To criminalize Indigenous dissent, then, is to repress Indigenous rights in Canada, and our responsibilities to protect the land. We are transparent, open, base-driven movements that take a non-violent, peaceful direct action approach.”

“The state is criminalizing Indigenous peoples who are acting within their right to exercise jurisdiction over their lands. This is an abuse of democracy. It is clearly about providing a right-of-way for the mining and energy sector.”

The new anti-terrorism legislation and Indigenous rights

Dr. Tia Dafnos, who has written extensively about the criminalization of Indigenous dissent, finds chilling the proposed anti-terrorism legislation, as wells as calls for further increases in police and intelligence powers in the wake of the shootings at Parliament Hill.

“This is significant in light of recent proposals to increase the investigative powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) as Indigenous activism has long been a matter of interest to the RCMP, CSIS and the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre. Although the recent proposal to increase CSIS powers has been couched in terms of addressing the ‘radicalization threat,’ investigative powers are not issue-specific once they are introduced.”

She notes that while the full extent of the bill has not been released, the designation of groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network (that Thomas-Muller worked for in 2010 at the time of the RCMP report) as “extremist” could make them susceptible to new investigative powers.

What should concern Canadians is how the concept of ‘national security’ is being hijacked to promote an energy agenda that promotes economic uncertainty, ecological risk, and the violation of Indigenous rights.

These are the wars at home and ordinary citizens have suddenly found themselves thrust onto the frontlines.

Shiri Pasternak is a writer and researcher based in Toronto and a Post Doctoral Fellow at Columbia University. She is an organizer with the Defenders of the Land network and the Anti-Colonial Committee of the Law Union of Ontario. Find more of her writing at